Just a few weeks old, Rococo Steak is mixing things up. From side dishes to musical selections, it has brought a subversive eye to reinventing the steak house, its presence alone a novelty downtown. • There are competing theories about why Tampa has such a wealth of high-end steak houses and St. Petersburg nearly none. Tampa International Airport is where the business class flies, with stops in the West Shore district business parks, business hotels and, by extension, expense-account restaurants. Nothing says "expense account" like a 22-ounce rib eye and a bottle of Screaming Eagle. On the other hand, maybe the success and longevity of restaurants like Bern's and Charley's has prompted big steak chains (the Capital Grille, Fleming's, Shula's, Ruth's Chris) to conclude that Tampa is serious steak country. Alternatively, Raymond James Stadium is on the Tampa side, and football fans are often steak house fans.
But for whatever reason, St. Petersburg, especially downtown, has been underserved in this arena. Oh, there's plenty of steak, just not a steak house. That, of course, prompts the question of just what a steak house is. It started as a resolutely American invention called "the beefsteak" in the middle of the 19th century in New York, events in huge halls where men sat at long tables eating humongous quantities of meat washed down with pitchers of beer, forget the utensils and napkins.
Potatoes were introduced to fill all-you-can-eat diners up with the cheap stuff, and things like shrimp cocktail and vegetables showed up when women were admitted to the party. Steak houses have traditionally been dark, wood-paneled and cigar-friendly, with suavely obsequious tuxedoed waiters and extravagant wine lists heavy on the California cabs and equally deep on the single-malt scotches, where indulgence is de rigueur and you'll confess to your cardiologist later.
But what's this? Rococo Steak offers no creamed spinach, no boats of béarnaise, no baked potatoes, no cheesecake even. Perhaps it's no accident that the new project from the Caledon Concept Partners (parent company of the Ceviche group) has set up shop in the historic 1920s YWCA building in St. Petersburg, not the ramshackle YMCA building down the street. It is seriously "W" friendly.
More than $3 million was spent on the building's renovation, with deep gray walls, white cove ceilings and ruby-red chandeliers. Despite the huge building, the main dining room is intimate (there's a covered porch out front and private dining upstairs), with touches like a slightly salacious ceiling mural that reinforce that this is an independent restaurant in a historic space, an experience categorically different from being in an I-could-be-anywhere Ruth's Chris.
It is dark (ah, the flashlight app), with a soundtrack that draws deeply from feel-good 1980s pop. With smoking declining, Rococo offers complimentary boxes of toothpicks in lieu of matches. And though the core of the menu is nearly a dozen corn- and grass-fed beef options, Rococo is welcoming to vegetarians and pescatarians alike.
Still a baby, the restaurant has servers who are green but eager, with far too many smartly dressed (great gray shirts) folks zipping around the dining room. That will be worked out pronto, and it's clear servers and bartenders are being given rigorous menu and wine list education.
The wine list will take some education: It is perhaps the most ambitious list to debut in Pinellas County in recent years. Some of this is due to the fact that the parent company inherited the wine cellar of Tio Pepe in Clearwater, a big chunk of its more historic bottlings providing the foundation for Rococo's list. There are cult wines, boutique gems, deep verticals in Bordeaux, California and vintage Champagnes, and surprises like a nearly complete vertical of Vega Sicilia "Unico" Gran Reserva going back to 1962. There are large-format bottles and lots of 375ml bottles, but also great deals for the budget-minded wine drinker.
Add to this a smart and slightly quirky list of wines by the glass and a short list of innovative craft cocktails and Rococo will whet your whistle brilliantly before you dive into the one-page menu. Desserts are the weakest link so far, with a too-firm and gimmicky panna cotta and a ho-hum bread pudding, but in a couple of visits I found that chef Richard Potts is running a tight ship already.
Bacon gets its due with a "flight" of wild boar, duck and Nueske bacons, thick cut and luscious ($9) served in a wire basket with a napkin and superfluous maple syrup. It makes a great shared nibble, as does a salad of baby beets and heirloom tomato elevated by paper-thin slices of watermelon radish and bits of mint ($12) or the crispy kale chips ($6), although I'd go heavier on the salt and lighter on the orange zest to really bring out the kale flavor.
The kale is technically a side, as are the really wonderful caramelized broccolini with garlic confit and a drizzle of lemon oil ($9) or the equally successful Incan red quinoa pilaf studded with candied walnut and shallot ($8). As at many steak houses, steaks come solo (here on oversized dark ceramic rectangles), so sides and accompaniments are the way to personalize. More of a traditionalist? Creamed corn kissed faintly by Anaheim chilies and chipotle ($8) will resonate, as will the house mac and cheese ($9), which you can have gussied with cold-water lobster tail or shaved black truffle and truffle oil.
And then there's the meat. A 6-ounce grass-fed filet mignon ($28) shows off the allure of that side of the grass versus corn debate. A little chewier, less plush than its corn-fed cousin with a clean, beefy flavor that hints at minerals and, yes, grass. Another night I had the 22-ounce dry-aged, bone-in rib eye ($47), a whole lot more marbling, a richer flavor and just a whole lot more meat, the bone providing a deeper savoriness. I wasn't wowed by the angry lobster "enhancement" ($10), what really amounted to a tangle of butter-and-Sriracha-poached lobster bits, but foie gras, compound butters and truffle are also on hand to gild the lily.
Have I had a better steak in the Tampa Bay area? Yes, I have — individual steaks on individual nights at some of the places mentioned at the top of this review. But Rococo, with its Men at Work songs, quinoa and thoughtful seafood and game (I didn't even mention the antelope schnitzel or the gorgeous Normandy seafood stew), is bringing something new to a paradigm that can sometimes feel a bit dated.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.